Arkansas Senate Panel Backs Abortion Coverage Ban

ANDREW DeMILLO | Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – An Arkansas Senate panel approved a measure Wednesday banning insurers participating in an exchange created under the health care law from covering most abortions, while the sponsor of legislation banning abortions 20 weeks into a pregnancy said he's facing resistance for it not exempting victims of rape or incest.

By a 5-2 vote, the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee advanced legislation barring abortion coverage in the health insurance exchange, with exemptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. One Democratic member of the panel voted "present" on the measure.

The measure heads to a Senate that's already approved a measure that would ban most abortions in the state. If enacted, that ban would likely be the most restrictive in the nation.

The legislation advanced by the Senate panel Wednesday would allow abortion coverage through supplemental policies, an option that opponents say is not currently available in the state. Proponents said they're merely taking advantage of a provision in the 2010 health overhaul that allows states to set policies on abortion coverage in the exchanges, marketplaces for individuals and businesses to buy insurance.

"Without this law, those who are responsible for setting up our health care exchanges will be left without clear guidance from the Legislature about how to deal with abortion as they deal with the recently passed federal health care law," Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, the panel's chairman, told lawmakers.

Opponents, however, warned that the measure would prevent women from purchasing insurance coverage that would cover abortions.

"You are banning a woman's right to choose to do this with her own money," said Bettina Brownstein, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.

The measure, which the House approved this week, is one of several new abortion restrictions lawmakers are considering after Republicans won control of the Legislature in last year's election.

The chief sponsor of another restriction that would ban most abortions at 20 weeks into a pregnancy said he's delaying bringing his proposal before the same panel after concerns were raised about its lack of an exemption for rape or incest. The measure by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, would ban abortions based on the disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks.

"I think a couple members of the committee might be more supportive of it if it had one in there," said Mayberry, who said he doesn't plan on changing the legislation.

The panel is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and Mayberry said he had the support of the four GOP members on the committee. Two Democrats on the panel said they're worried about the lack of an exemption.

"It just gives me a little bit of concern, certainly," said Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, who supported the abortion coverage ban.

Sen. David Burnett, who voted "present" on the coverage ban, said he didn't think he could support Mayberry's bill without the exceptions.

"I think that rape and incest need to be included," said Burnett, D-Osceola.

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe has said he's reviewing both proposals, but has not said whether he opposes them.

Resistance to the 20-week ban comes a day after the lawmaker proposing an even-stricter prohibition on abortions announced he would alter his legislation to address concerns that it was invasive. In his initial proposal, Sen. Jason Rapert would have banned abortions at about six weeks into a pregnancy, based on when a heartbeat may be detected.

Rapert is amending his bill to trigger the ban if an abdominal ultrasound detects a heartbeat. Opponents have said the only way to detect a heartbeat at six weeks is by using a vaginal ultrasound probe. The change would end up banning an abortion at 10 to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

"We've struck a compromise that I believe regards the interests and the choice of women but also puts in place a standard to protect the life of the child," Rapert, R-Conway, said Wednesday.

Opponents said the change, however, wouldn't address their concerns that the measure violates the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks. Beebe and Republican House Speaker Davy Carter have also raised concerns about the measure's constitutionality.

"Regardless of any amendments being discussed, any bill that eliminates abortion is a bad bill for Arkansas women and their families," said Murry Newbern, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

Andrew DeMillo can be reached at

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